Sexuality: A Sawyer Seminar at UC Berkeley

Linguistic Anthropology and Literary and Cultural Studies: A Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar: Session 5: Sexuality

Conference/Symposium | March 13 – 14, 2019 | 5-7 p.m. | 370 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley

 Rusty Barrett, University of Kentucky; Howard Fisher, UC Berkeley; Roshanak Kheshti, UC San Diego; Michael Lucey, UC Berkeley; Damon Young, UC Berkeley; Don Kulick, Uppsala University

If we take as a starting place that sexuality and gender are in part social facts, that while they often feel intensely personal and interior, they are nonetheless to a great extent collective phenomena, involving collective representations that are produced through human interaction, and that they are enacted by means of social forms – combinations of collective representations, sets of practices and inclinations that become institutions, differentially distributed across a social field, subject to modification both by external forces and by the cumulative effect of individual actions –, then we can see easily enough why they are variable across time and space in unpredictable ways, and why, when we deal with these social facts and forms in our interactions with others, we are necessarily involved in ongoing acts of negotiation, contestation, and translation – not only between languages, but also often between implicit arrays of cultural concepts that we use to make the world intelligible to ourselves.

Linguistic anthropological work demonstrates how socio-conceptual structures of various kinds are immanent in, implicit in, everyone’s speech; we could say that those structures are indexed by or invoked through what we say. If something of our social world is shared by our interlocutor, if our interlocutor can reconstruct something of the point of view from which we speak, our implicit invocation of various conceptual structures will be part of what makes us intelligible to them, despite whatever implicitness may be involved in our utterances. Speech about gender and sexuality can serve as a vehicle for conveying a large array of cultural concepts, for staking a point of view on the social world at large. This has practical implications for different kinds of translation, even translation understood in the very basic sense of translating a passage from a memoir or a passage from a novel in which sexuality is in question from French into English – when clearly what must be (but really cannot adequately be) translated is not exactly the words in question so much as the point of view on the social world that those words index. “Is there,” Michael Silverstein has asked, “a sociocultural unconscious in the mind—wherever that is located in respect of the biological organism—that is both immanent in and emergent from our use of language? Can we ever profoundly study the social significance of language without understanding this sociocultural unconscious that it seems to reveal? And if it is correct that language is the principal exemplar, medium, and site of the cultural, then can we ever understand the cultural without understanding this particular conceptual dimension of language?”

This is the fifth of seven two-day meetings of a Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar taking place throughout 2018-2019 at UCB. The seminar aims to explore the potential of a set of concepts, tools, and critical practices developed in the field of linguistic anthropology for work being done in the fields of literary and cultural criticism.

 UC Berkeley Department of Comparative LiteratureAndrew W. Mellon Foundation